Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Mr. Allan: I was interested to hear the contribution of the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), who speaks with considerable experience. I, too, remember during debates on the 1999 legislation hearing many Government commitments to refocus detention on removal. However, the action of refocusing it on removal is currently absent: we have merely a change in name rather than in practice, which is worrying.

The two Liberal Democrat amendments are designed to assist the Government by refocusing their removal centres on removal. We lost the argument about the name a few minutes ago, so we move on to what the removal centres should do. We simply say that removal centres should be used for removal.

We also want to help the Government to meet their commitment to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child by excluding those under the age of 18. The Government gained an exemption from article 22 some time ago, but we continue to challenge that. It is right to criticise and press hard on the issue of holding children in detention.

The fact that we want to redefine removal centres should not lead the Minister to argue that we want to let loose many people who should be detained. Our suggestion is that three classes of centre are needed. We need accommodation centres for those normally held in the community, and it is appropriate to use removal centres for removals, but another category of people—not necessarily only asylum seekers—will have to be detained from time to time for various reasons. I await the Minister's clarification of precisely whom the categories will include.

People arrive at a port of entry for various reasons, some perfectly legitimate, but the immigration service may not be able to let individuals leave that port. Can individuals who have to be held for a variety of immigration reasons, not just because of asylum claims, only be held in removal centres? Some issues might need to be clarified before an individual can be

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allowed to go about his business in the UK, and detention might unfortunately be necessary in the short term.

I agree with the hon. Member for Walthamstow that detention should be kept to a minimum, but that it is necessary in certain circumstances. I do not want someone suspected of criminality to be set loose in the country. Such a person should be detained while the circumstances are investigated. However, I question whether it is right to place that individual in a removal centre, given that at a later date he may turn out to be entirely innocent at a later date. Perhaps there should be the three categories that I suggested, which include accommodation centres for those going into normal community accommodation and removal centres for those who are to be removed, which is what the Government want to establish.

Let us be honest: detention may be required for various reasons. We must make a clear distinction between removal and detention and not make a clumsy attempt to wrap up the two together, thereby creating a large category of people in removal centres who are not about to be removed. The figures show that such people are likely to be at the beginning of the system, not at the end.

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow about the current use of detention. I have seen far too many cases in which there was no basis in the first instance for someone not to be granted bail or to be detained. I hope that the emphasis placed on the change of name signifies a change of policy. Above all, our discussion shows the need for improvements in the quality of the decision-making process, because bail has been allowed in due course in too many cases. I accept that we are not discussing bail conditions, but in too many cases detention was not justified given the objective analysis of the facts before the decision maker.

I hope that the Minister can say how we can ensure that the process is changed so that people are not detained unnecessarily. I am worried that one of the downsides of an otherwise good Bill might be an increase in the number of people who are detained when they should not be. I hope that we can ensure that that does not happen as a result of our discussions and the administrative decisions that will follow thereafter.

Mr. Malins: We have had a useful discussion. Concerns have been expressed by those on both sides of the Committee who are genuinely concerned about the clause. Given that, I do not see a need to press amendment No. 235 to a Division, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw it.

Mr. Allan: I am puzzled. I did not know whether the hon. Gentleman was expecting a ministerial response. I had been looking forward to it.

Mr. Malins: I did not expect much of the Minister.

Angela Eagle: I was about to respond. I was expecting the hon. Gentleman to add something that he had forgotten to say in his initial speech, but clearly his expectations of me are fairly low.

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Mr. Malins: I apologise. I sought to withdraw the amendment too early. The hon. Lady is always courteous in her responses. I intended no offence.

Angela Eagle: None taken.

I confirm that our priority for the use of detention space is to support the removal of failed asylum seekers and others with no basis to stay here—generally, illegal entrants and overstayers. That is the main purpose of the detention, now to be called the removal estate. However, members of the Committee are right to point out that apart from detention to effect removal, which includes deportation for immigration offenders rather than asylum seekers, we may detain both asylum and non-asylum cases while the person's identity or claim is established. Clearly, that must be at a beginning of a claim, not at the end.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow was right to point out that the immigration and nationality directorate is often faced with people who claim a certain identity that we cannot verify. He mentioned circumstances in which someone claimed an identity of a verifiably dead person and, despite being presented with the facts, still maintained that she was that person. The IND has to deal with such matters all the time.

There are sometimes multiple claims using many different identities, which we are beginning to pick up more regularly through our electronic fingerprinting systems. We have fingerprinted asylum seekers for many years, but the new systems allow us to compare the prints with large banks of records much more effectively. The equipment that allows us to do that can be portable in some circumstances. We are picking up more and more evidence of multiple false claims and different identities.

It is proper that we detain while we investigate those false claims, and clearly that has to take place at the beginning rather than at the end of a case. There are certainly people in detention whose identities we cannot establish or whose stories we doubt. If we can confirm their identity, they are usually released from detention quite quickly, and they go on into the system in the normal way. Hon. Members will know that there is quite a throughput, which means that giving figures and particular statistics provides only a snapshot of one day. We can also detain because a person is likely to abscond. That can take place at different stages of the claim.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): I have a great deal of empathy with that point, but I am not confident that the people being held in detention fall precisely into those sensible categories. If the Department has statistical information to demonstrate that, it would help to allay fears. My hon. Friend has certainly outlined categories of people that few members of the Committee would challenge, but we would like to see the evidence on which those categories are based.

Angela Eagle: I regret to say—this is as much a frustration for me as it is for anyone else—that the paper-based nature of the casework means that it is difficult to collate the statistics in the way that my hon.

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Friend wants. I can assure her that we are proceeding as quickly as possible with—I dread to use the phrase—information technology that will give us more effective and up-to-date statistics, but at the moment the system is overwhelmingly based on paper files, and without a disproportionate use of resources it is difficult to keep a constant track on the way that the files are circulating around the system. I would prefer to be able to give hon. Members the information that they require, and I hope that help will be at hand in due course.

The final category of people whom we are likely to detain will be part of a fast-track case processing facility. Oakington is the example of that, subject to whatever the House of Lords decides.

Mr. Malins: I remind the Minister that I asked about removals in 2001 and the target for 2002. Can she give us those up-to-date statistics?

Angela Eagle: I can give the hon. Gentleman provisional statistics that come with all the usual health warnings. I was about to get on to that, so perhaps he should have had slightly more faith that I would remember his questions. The provisional figure for 2001 is 9,285, which is a 3 per cent. increase on the 2000 figure, a 93 per cent. increase on the 1996 figure and the highest annual figure on record. It clearly falls short of our target of 30,000. That was always an ambitious target, but we are striving to achieve it.

Mr. Malins: When does the Minister expect to achieve it?

Angela Eagle: We are seeking a step change in the way in which we carry out removals. We are making many administrative changes as well as some of the changes in the Bill to increase the integrity of the asylum process. As I have said before, I firmly believe that there has to be a difference between someone who claims asylum and fails to get either refugee status or other lesser forms of protection, and someone who succeeds. The difference between someone who fails and someone who succeeds should be that the person who fails is returned to his country of origin. That is a vital part of our work to step up our ability to remove people.

As hon. Members know, removing people according to law, in good order, in safety, and so on, is difficult. To return people to their country of origin requires the consent of the country to which we are returning the people, the issue of travel papers, spaces on airline flights, or in some cases the chartering of our own flight. It is a huge logistical task.

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We have administered a range of provisions to help reach the target: creating arrest teams—an aspect of which my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary discussed on previous clauses; serving determination in person in some cases; the Association of Chief Police Officers protocol which enables us to use the police to arrest people; the expansion of the removal estate despite the setback at Yarl's Wood; the biometric smartcard which enables us to keep closer contact with asylum seekers; the chartering of flights for removals in certain circumstances; and an increased number of

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departures through voluntary assisted returns. The figure that I gave earlier includes all enforced and voluntary returns. Other means include fingerprinting and closer co-operation with local authorities to see how we can remove failed asylum seekers living in local authority accommodation.

There is a range of work across the piece to try to increase integrity in the system once the asylum appeal has been determined.

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